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2000s Archive

Hungry For Adventure

Originally Published March 2000
Along deserted beaches, through villages of thatch, and across some pretty shaky ground—one’s writer’s pursuit of the perfect meal in Mozambique.

I will go to the end of the universe in search of a good meal. And sometimes I have found myself at the end of the universe wondering what I’ve gotten myself into. I’ve eaten undercooked goat in a wattle hut in Somalia as mortar rounds landed in the distance; I’ve endured the gruesome guerrilla-combat tales of an ex-Karen rebel as he prepared our dinner on the Thai-Malaysian border; and I’ve been serenaded by an old, battle-scarred Belgian chef as he garnished my fresh-cooked octopus on the coast of East Africa. (“Un missionnaire?” I asked him in disbelief. “You were a missionary?” “Ah non, monsieur,” he said, “un mercenaire.”)

So it was not that unusual for me to go out of my way to track down what I’d been told was one of Africa’s most delicious dishes. But winding up in the middle of a minefield was a little more than I’d bargained for.

I had heard about matapa from Michael Bond, in the Mozambican capital of Maputo, where he is the British chef at the city’s Hotel Cardoso. Bond, who had described Mozambican cuisine as a blend of Portuguese, African, and Asian influences, had told me that finding a really good matapa—a combination of seafood, peanuts, coconut milk, cassava leaf, and garlic—prepared a day in advance, was worth almost any effort. “You can find it in the city,” he said, “but that would be like me going to New York for good hush puppies. If you want the best matapa, you don’t come to Maputo—you have to go into the bush, where they have the time, the ingredients, and the tradition. Find a fisherman. A good matapa, really, is a little taste of heaven.”

Mozambique, on the Indian Ocean side of southern Africa, is still picking itself up from one of the continent’s longest-running civil wars. Regarded today by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund as a success story among developing nations, it has yet to qualify as even a pit stop on the tourist superhighway—this despite its deserted beaches, its wildlife, and, as I was to discover, its remarkable food.

I found my way to the crowded fish market on Maputo’s waterfront, just up the embankment from the mangrove-lined beach where fishermen careen their boats. The tangy smells from the mudflats exposed at low tide, the smoke from the cooking fires, and the slabs of fresh fish on the wooden tables created an intoxicating perfume. Tossing about words in guidebook Portuguese, the lingua franca of the country, I asked various people where I could find matapa. A toothless old woman selling buckets of mussels, oysters, and crabs in one of the thatched-roof stalls pointed across the crowd to a powerful-looking fisherman in a red baseball cap, who was dickering enthusiastically with a stall owner about the price of his pickup-load of fish.

The big fisherman reluctantly admitted in broken English that he did know where I could find a good matapa but that the place was about a day’s drive north into the country, near his fishing camp, and no mulungu (“white person”) would want to go there. I was hooked.

The fisherman, Zizi, accepted my offer to pay for the gas, and shortly after dawn the next day the two of us rattled our way out of town aboard his battered Toyota pickup. The woodenstock of a rifle stuck out from under my seat.

We drove past the savanna of scrub, thorn tree, and neatly kept villages of traditional rounded huts built from caniço, local swamp reed.

“Zizi, why can’t you get good matapa in Maputo?”

“Coconuts not sweet,” he said simply.

We were going north, toward the equator—to the tropics, where coconuts the world over are sweeter, meatier. Villagers flagged down traffic with what looked like dirty rags; as we passed, the rags they waved became live chickens and rabbits they gripped by the feet. Anthills six feet high were scattered amid the bush; children flew kites decorated with red-and-white–striped plastic strips as tails; smoke from cooking fires rose from the reed homes; and women walked along the road balancing water jugs and bundles of cane on their heads. It was a tableau of timeless Africa.

I was to discover that Zizi was not a man of convention, African or otherwise. Ten kilometers outside of town, we stopped at a small cane-built kiosk alongside the road for his breakfast—a couple half-liter bottles of Laurentina beer, which he uncapped with his teeth, and a badgia, a sandwich of fried bean patty sprinkled with an accidental dusting of sand. Despite the grit, this Mozambican fast food, with a taste vaguely reminiscent of Turkish hummus but spiced with coriander and wood smoke, was delicious.

On one beer-and-badgia break, a handsome young woman wrapped in a colorful capulana with an infant swaddled to her back hobbled by on crutches made from tree limbs—the first sign of the legacy of the 17-year war. She had only one leg, but she carried herself with dignity.

Once in Inhambane Province, the detritus of the war became more visible. Rusted hulks of trucks and armored personnel carriers lined the road; stubby trees and brush grew through their skeletal remains. Up ahead, a flock of fat guinea fowl pecked away at the dirt by the side of the road. Zizi stopped, jumped out, and pulled the rifle from under my seat as the terrified birds scurried down the embankment.


We stumbled down the verge in hot pursuit. Zizi stopped, took aim at something in the underbrush, and fired. Pufft! His gun wasn’t anything more than an air rifle. In this country where the AK-47 Kalashnikov was once king, this great Mozambican hunter was popping his trophy with a pellet gun.

I followed Zizi deeper into the bush. He stopped short; for some time he stood frozen, without moving a muscle, without taking a breath. With the nearly imperceptible movement of a sidewalk mime, he leaned forward and cautiously reached for a small sign tied to a stake in front of him. The familiar red-and-white–striped plastic tape I’d seen on the children’s kites marked off some ground in the distance. Visibly shaking and with frustrating slowness, he turned the sign toward us.

I caught my breath. A vacant-eyed skull and crossbones printed against a bright-red background warned: perigo minas! emina! Below the skull, in the language of the local Machope people: xipulukwa!—dzophulika! The striped tape ahead marked the cleared access area—we were in the middle of a minefield!

A long jump away would get us to the other side. I thought he could make it, but I was behind him. Could I? I was standing on a postage stamp, and because of the need to remain motionless, I felt I was about to topple over. I turned to see if I could retrace my footsteps, but only a few broken branches marked where we had blundered through.

Without warning, Zizi took a clumsy leap, knocking over the sign and falling onto his face; he scuttled into the middle of the cordoned-off area on his hands and knees. He was safe. I teetered under the withering midday sun, surrounded by mines. I felt very alone. The distance between me and safety seemed as wide as the Grand Canyon. Knees knocking, I coiled and jumped and stumbled just beyond the tape. I wiped the sweat of fear from my face.

On the safe side of the minefield, we followed an access area cleared for a path and found our way back to the road. In the pickup we sat in silence, staring ahead at the back end of passing traffic. I was still shaking. In the distance, a half dozen members of a minesweeping team in orange jumpsuits boarded a bus. How could we have stumbled through a minefield without blowing ourselves up?

“People steal signs and then put them on their land to keep other people away,” Zizi explained. This patch, I hear later, may have just been cleared but not registered, and locals, thinking it was safe, had probably taken the sign.

A half hour later, we pulled into Zandemela, a little false-fronted village of Portuguese influence. The tiny restaurant beside the road, our matapa destination at last, was nothing more than a rounded cane hut with three tables covered in blue-and-white–checkered cloth. Chest-high cement walls splashed with colorful murals enclosed the dining area; wide-eyed green figures—intertwined, knotted together, a Dantesque creation of the artist’s anguish—were painted subway-graffiti style across the walls. The land-mine signs cast small shadows on the dirt just outside the restaurant under the orange and lime trees.

A well-fed middle-aged Mozambican clad in a white button-down shirt and conservative tie and an attractive young woman in Western clothes sat at one of the tables, a mobile phone next to their meal of frango zambeziana, grilled chicken marinated in coconut milk. The man looked up and nodded his head at us in silent greeting.

“Governor of province,” Zizi said quietly.

Lounging at the only other table was Zizi’s cousin and fishing partner, Guebo, a Mozambican from up-country whose Portuguese father had been a policeman during the colonial era and whose mother, from a tribe in the north, had died a couple of years back from cerebral malaria. He was a skinny young man with laughing black eyes, a quick smile, and a futile attempt at a mustache. He wore a black woven ski cap.

A boy about ten years old in a threadbare T-shirt and shorts passed by carrying long bamboo kebab sticks of tiny fish. I motioned that I’d like to taste one. He shied away, but after some soothing words from Zizi, the boy reluctantly handed me one of his wooden lances.

“You do this,” Zizi said. He slid off a tiny fish and popped it into his mouth—bones, guts, head, and all—then handed one to me. Going beyond the aesthetic and necessarily chased with a beer, it was good—and it kicked in the juices. I hadn’t realized I was so hungry. But one was enough, and Zizi and Guebo gulped down the rest.

Peixe castigado,” Guebo offered. “Here in province, when you punished for crime, you are tied to tree in sun and you make your arms like this,” he clowned, outstretching his scrawny arms as in a crucifixion. “And you stay long, long time. Same way to smoke fish. Castigado.”

A raven-size crow with a thick white neck perched above the skull and crossbones of a land-mine sign and stared at us with critical eyes. I sat back under the cooling breeze, happy for the beer and eager to taste this matapa.

Malat, the owner of the place, was a giant of a man with a pendulous gut, a laugh as large as his stomach, and corvine eyes as sharp as the crow’s. Clad in a bright-yellow T-shirt with the picture of a pistol pointing into his pants, he entered with a tray of glasses and a liter-size plastic Coke bottle of sura, a creamy concoction made from the drippings of hanging coconut fronds. Direct from the tree, it is given to children as a sort of nourishing soft drink. Left sitting and untouched for 24 hours, it becomes a coconut beer; the third day it becomes a very strong coco­nut beer; and on the fourth day the potion is simply lethal. It was day two for this particular batch, and it tasted like a barium treatment—a little lemony, a little sweet, a little chalky, and a bit effervescent. You would have to be hard-core to want to party on this stuff.

Nervous chickens pattered across the floor under the tables. “Lunch?” I asked the owner, nodding toward the chickens.

He just grinned. From behind the compound, I thought I could hear the frightened squawking of a chicken getting its neck wrung.

Malat’s barefoot daughter, wearing a capulana of brilliant orange, yellow, and red, approached with a plastic bowl and a pitcher, with a white towel draped over her arm like a Parisian sommelier. I followed Zizi’s lead and let her pour warm water over my hands.

The matapa finally arrived, accompanied by another of Mozambique’s unique dishes—xima—a dense mixture of ground maize and water. The combination of the deep-green matapa, its lobster-claw centerpiece, and the pale xima made for an attractive ensemble of rustic colors and textures.

I couldn’t identify every type of sea­food in the matapa, but I was able to detect mussels, small prawns, clams, and one small hard-shelled crab, claws and all. Soft-shelled crabs I know, but this shell was hard, and, much as I tried, I found the critter just too small to pick apart. Noticing my puzzlement, Zizi took it from my fingers and popped it into his mouth, crunching through the shell.

Now for the matapa. Thick and creamy, it had a sweet and smoky, slightly nutty taste that wasn’t so overpowering it masked the discrete flavors of the seafood. In fact, each delicate clam, prawn, and mussel was remarkably distinct. I suspect my awe was akin to that felt upon discovering land on the Other Side.

I told Malat I had to see firsthand how the extraordinary dish was prepared. We wandered into the red-dirt yard out back, where his daughter stood over a mortar rhythmically smashing peanuts into powder with a thick wooden pestle. She was, he said, just getting started on the matapa for the next day. Sitting nearby under a cashew tree was her younger sister, grating coconut meat, from which she’d squeeze out the milk. So these were the coconuts that were supposed to make the difference ...

After the peanuts are pounded into an oily mixture, Malat explained as we walked back out front, cassava leaves are added, along with garlic, piri-piri (tiny hot chiles), and shaved green papaya. Raw prawns and whatever other seafood is available, coconut milk, tomatoes, and onions are thrown in, and the mixture is left to simmer for about five hours. It becomes, at least to my taste, quite possibly one of the most intriguing, satisfying dishes I have ever eaten, worth almost any effort—short of blowing oneself to smithereens. I could not get enough of it.

Using their fingers, the fishermen mixed arroz de coco, white rice boiled in coconut water, and the matapa into a ball, then they flicked the wad with their thumbs off their fingers into their mouths. They handled this motion with some finesse and made it appear that this was the only reasonable way to eat it. There was no mess, no slurping or finger licking, and no need for metal utensils. After getting the hang of it, I decided it was a fine way to enjoy the meal.

“We are happy now,” Guebo said, downing the last of his sura. “No more war. Good times coming.”

With the smoky taste of the matapa still lingering, we piled into Zizi’s rickety pickup and drove past a campsite of military tents. A group of weary men in orange jumpsuits sat against a eucalyptus tree smoking cigarettes, taking a break from their work.


Ready For Its Close-Up

Mozambique is like a young girl dressing up for a party to which she hopes she’ll be invited. Following a devastating civil war, the southern African nation is almost convinced tourists will soon discover she is as pretty, or prettier, than the rest. With stretches of wide, unspoiled beaches running a thousand miles along the Indian Ocean, plenty of wildlife, and eager-to-please people, Mozambique is quite possibly one of the few remaining “undiscovered” places left on earth.

The capital, Maputo, previously known as Lourenço Marques, was created by the Portuguese with style, charm, and logic; it was once regarded as one of the more vibrant cities on the continent. While only a shadow of its once-splendid self, Maputo has the potential to regain its preeminence among African capitals. Jutting out like a strong chin into the sea, the city offers colonial buildings of faded elegance, wide tree-lined (but often rather broken) streets, a remarkable cathedral that rises from the city center with futuristic grace, and an elaborate but nearly deserted Victorian railway station designed by Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel that conjures up the days of elegant rail travel. There are sidewalk cafés and even a thatched-roof outdoor pub, a favorite haunt of the expats.

Mozambique is the current darling of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (and for good reason—it has one of the fastest-growing economies and one of the lowest inflation rates in Africa). Perhaps because of the donor traffic, there are some superb hotels and restaurants in Maputo.

Where to Stay

Hotel Polana

Avenida Julius Nyerere, tel. 491 001, fax 491 480. This 78-year-old hotel, with its elegant rooms and sea views, is considered among the finest in Africa. Doubles from $175.

Hotel Cardoso

Avenida Martires de Mueda, tel. 491 071, fax 491 804. Recently refurbished, the Cardoso also overlooks the sea. The food here is excellent. Doubles from $115.

Where to Eat

Ungumi (Avenida Julius Nyerere), in the former Vietnamese embassy, is said to have the best cuisine in the country. The more modest but classic 1908 (Avenida Eduardo Mondlane) is another reliable place. For some local eats, head to the Feira Popular, down by the waterfront, with lots of little restaurants and bars.

To get to the best mukuane, a regional cousin of matapa, take a short taxi ride to O Coquiero, owned by Carmina Graça.

Maputo, like other major African cities, is not altogether safe. Refugees, left homeless by the war (or driven from their villages by minefields), crowd into the city. When walking here, avoid the streets at night unless traveling by taxi or private transportation. In daytime, wear little or no jewelry and carry nothing more than you can afford to lose. Finally, act like you know where you’re going even if you don’t.

Well outside the city, however, crime against tourists is virtually unheard-of and Mozambicans are eager to welcome visitors. The country has the most pristine beaches on the east coast of Africa. Visitors could walk for days without seeing anyone other than the random fisherman. A number of little resorts have cropped up along the coast in the south, among them Zongoene Lodge, just north of Maputo at the mouth of the Limpopo River.

The Details

To telephone Mozambique from the United States, first dial 011 258 1.


The official language of Mozambique is Portuguese, which is spoken in the larger towns by older people and the very young (teenagers and young adults, who had their education interrupted by the war, speak local dialects).

When to go:

The best time to visit is during the dry season, from April to September.


Required for U.S. citizens.

Money matters:

Mozambique’s currency is the meticais, valued at 13,000 per one U.S. dollar.